Bobbin Along
July 3, 2010 6:53 AM   Subscribe

I need a sewing machine; how much should I budget, where should I look, and what features should I be looking for?

I used to sew a lot: quilts, curtains, clothes, toys, pillows, and so on but when I moved 10 years ago I left my junky old machine behind and have sewn by hand since then. I've only ever had really old, basic hand-me-down machines and haven't a clue as to what's out there. This isn't a great time financially for me (it's been a year of accidents and emergencies) but I do have some money I can start setting aside. How much should I budget for a good basic machine and where should I buy it? In other words what experience have you had with buying and using sewing machines lately?
posted by Secret Life of Gravy to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
You have to decide what features you need. Do you need the embroidery templates etc.? Is durability a factor? Do you need to make buttonholes? A free arm? Decorative stitches?

You can look at features on Amazon to see what is available and then decide what you need.

I have had a Viking 1030 since 1970 (there is one on eBay today) and have had it maintained only twice. For a simple machine it's a workhorse.
posted by andreap at 7:18 AM on July 3, 2010

I think the great blog not martha has an excellent guide to buying your first sewing machine, which also applies to you, even though some of the basics she mentions (like how a bobbin works, etc) you already know, but it's a good overview of websites/manufacturers.

I personally have my mom's hand-me-down machine (New Home Janome Memory Craft 6000 made in 1986) and love it - it was pretty expensive when my mom got it, but it is still going strong, I just had it oiled and tuned up and the repairman said it was in top-shape. I also noticed while I was picking it up, there were a lot of high quality machines at the shop for sale, and he was extremely knowledgable about the quality and capabilities of the machine based on what I'm looking to do (I am looking for a long-arm quilting machine, hopefully Juki, hopefully under $600), so I would suggest also checking out some local sewing machine repair shops, usually local quilting shops will steer you in the correct direction, rather than just "Go to Walmart and buy a $70 machine that run terribly and catches all of your fine fabrics and rips them to pieces!"
posted by banannafish at 7:21 AM on July 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

I don't know if this is helpful at all, but I bought a Singer at a garage sale for $15, and it works perfectly. It was in great shape when I bought it, but I took it to the local repair place anyway. I would give the garage sales a chance!
posted by bolognius maximus at 7:36 AM on July 3, 2010

Response by poster: I would say durability and the ability to handle a large range of fabrics-- from tissue silk to heavy corduroy are the features I'm looking for. When I quilt, I only use the machine for making strips not for the actual quilting itself. I don't want anything I have to program or rely on soft ware to run-- no fancy embroidery type stuff.

I did glance around at my local singer shop when I took in the vacumm to be serviced and most of their refurbished machines seemed too complicated to me. Maybe I could get used to that in time, but all I want to do is sew a straight line.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:37 AM on July 3, 2010

Someone asked a similar question a few weeks ago.

I use my grandmother's old machine (a White) from the 60's, and it's fantastic. It's very basic, but it does everything I need it to do. I think you're better off getting an old machine from a garage sale or craigslist, and then having it serviced. That would probably cost less than the lowest-end new machine, and definitely work better.
posted by apricot at 7:57 AM on July 3, 2010

Best answer: I would say durability and the ability to handle a large range of fabrics

I sew a lot of stuff, everything from very fine nylon/polyester to extremely heavy webbing. I'm using the machine I learned on as a boy -- the Bernina 1130. It is a remarkable machine, logical, easy to use, super-reliable, and even after something like 20 years of hard use by my mom (who purchased it in 1986 for her sewing business, doing interiors), it does everything I need.

These machines were so good that they often sell for more than they cost originally. You could hardly go wrong buying one and getting it tuned up.

Some examples of things I've sewn with it -

Magnet thing for getting metal from riverbeds.
Cell phone pouch.
AR-15 strap

My mom has made doll dresses, baby clothes, quilts, instrument cases, etc all using this machine. Highly recommended.

One last thing. Don't buy on brand name. A friend of mine, who is also a Bernina fan, recently bought a Bernina at some big-box store, and it was a total waste of money. All-plastic gears, unreliable mechanism, and unable to sew anything but the easiest fabrics. Buy on features like metal body, all functions broken out in individual knobs and buttons, and personal recommendations.
posted by fake at 8:10 AM on July 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

I also have an older machine. I borrowed it from my sister about 20 years ago and "forgot" to return it. (It helps that we live several states apart). Mine is a Kenmore and a real work horse. It is all metal. I was shocked to see that machines nowadays are plastic.

I've also used a new foot treadle machine, a Dragonfly, made in China. I tell you, foot treadles are very soothing to sew with. I'd love to have one as an alternative.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 8:17 AM on July 3, 2010

If you know how to use a machine already, check Craigslist, Goodwill, garage sales and similar for what you want. Lots of good machines available for not very much money there since so few people sew.
posted by dilettante at 8:18 AM on July 3, 2010

A couple of years ago I wanted to teach myself to sew, and I had basically no budget. I went to Target and got a basic Brother machine. It's simple to use, has a few nice features -- buttonholes, different stitches -- but nothing extraordinary. For only a little more than $100 it has served me very, very well. I make my son's clothes, my home's curtains, pillows, purses, etc. I could not be happier with it. The thickest fabric I use is denim and it handles it just fine.
posted by BlahLaLa at 9:27 AM on July 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Check out yard sales and craigslist for old 60's and 70's Singers or Kenmores in good shape. I've gotten two really good machines this way. Bonus: You will pay $30-$50 for the machine, and if you don't like it for some reason, you can turn around and sell it the exact same way for what you paid for it.

I have a Husqvarna machine that is a cut above basic, and I think I spent about $300-$400 on it. You can get a nice machine for that much at JoAnn, if you really want a new machine. But really, if all you want is a straight stitch, haunt ye Craigslist and yardsales.
posted by Medieval Maven at 10:18 AM on July 3, 2010

Best answer: I bet the machine Fake is talking about is the Bernina Bernette. Yeah. TERRIBLE machine. I am surprised they let it dilute the brand like that. The real Berninas start at about 900-1000 for a decent student-grade model.

Machines I advise my students NEVER to get (unless they are free):
-Bernina "Bernette" for the reasons Fake mentions.
-Singers made after 1985 or so (they are loud and more prone to jam)
-Specifically stay away from the Singer 7000 series - the baseline machines have a lot of weird quirks. If you know how to sew, they will drive you nuts. Also problems with sewing anything but medium weight fabrics with medium weight thread. There is an auto reset that drives me nuts.
-The Viking line called "Huskystar".
-The Pfaff "hobby" series for the past ten years.
-Anything Simplicity or Store Brand.

Machines I own and have had a lot of good use out of:

Heavy-duty: Pfaff 130 flatbed (c. 1936) $600, Singer 31-15 (c. 1911) $200 - both plow through anything I throw at them in any weight. I use the Pfaff nearly every day.

Medium/Work Duty:
Featherweights -Great machines that strike a balance between the all-metal workhorse and super portable. Downside: Mine don't have zig-zag stitches (I don't know if the later models had them or not). Right now there are a glut of them for sale because of the economy. You can pick them up a bit cheaper than 3 or 4 years ago. If you only want straight stitching and need it to be portable, this is worth looking into. It may be apocryphal, but the man who used to fix my machines told me that the reason there are not more of these around is that the company knew they had a good thing. They wanted them off the market, so anytime anyone traded them in, the store was told to crack their bodies with a sledge hammer and sell the metal for scrap to get them off of the used market. I can believe it, but not sure if I do believe it. 250-400$ Used

Generally old Singers - I don't remember the model numbers, but I have maybe ten or twelve of the old black machines that are in portable wooden cases that are c.1911 though c.1958. These are rock-solid. You can find these everywhere and I rarely find one that doesn't work. 15-75$ Used

Supermatic (c.1968) and TSP (c.1973). These are solid machines with a great selection of stitches. Smooth sewing, quiet, and strong. They top out with a bit heavier than glove-weight leather and most vinyls, but lighter than that they really are a joy. You have to get used to the threading, as the thread-path is slightly mirrored, but wow do I like them. 65-100$ Used

Model 707 (c. 1968) one of my general sewing machines - it is mostly metal - one or two nylon gears that are easily found and easy to replace. This is my general traveling machine. and what I use to introduce folks to sewing if they have never sewn before. 200$ used
Model 830 (c.1974) I have two of these and they are wonderful. Heavy, and some plastic gearing, but really nice to sew on. In the classroom, the girls get here early to try to set up with these first. 400$ used
Model 1130 (c. 1980) Like he said. These really are life-long sewing machines that hold their value. 800$ used

1200 series is great as well. I would stay away from the electronic ones (with an "E" behind the names. They don't make the circuit boards for them anymore and out of the 4 I have, two are dead until I can find a board or make one. I think this is almost comparable to the Bernina 800 series. I usually find these for 75-150$

Pacesetter (80s, maybe?): The thing about this machine is that it is solid, but also has a chain stitch built in with the others. REALLY useful for any number of things. 25$ used

-Viking/Husqvarna: I have lots of them. 730, 750, Rose, Iris, Emerald 116, Emerald 118, and a couple of the Scandinavia series. I love them all. The 700 series does a great buttonhole and has all of the stitches you will want, as does the Rose and Iris. Nice machines. The Sapphire series has replaced the generic 700 series. The Emerald series is really good to start with and then trade up from there as you need to. The reason I have so many is that I think this brand is a good in-between. They are fairly solid, but not as expensive as the Berninas if I am buying new machines. New 250-1100$.

The biggest surprise to me in the past couple of years:
Brother's newer machines - especially the CS-6000 - are really good for what they are. Really good. You can find the series on Amazon for less than 200 bucks and they just seem to sew, sew, sew. It really surprises me how much I like what I have seen of them - you won't be sewing tents or saddles with them, but they are good all-around machines.

I am always shocked by the number of nice machines at the thrift stores. You can get a real steal if you keep your eyes open.
posted by Tchad at 10:23 AM on July 3, 2010 [20 favorites]

Brother has a line of Project Runway co-branded machines out that are as little as $200 and are aimed at "beginning" sewer who do mostly clothes/curtains/home fashion. They are very versatile and sturdy -- they score extremely well in Consumer Reports -- and I love mine. Easy to use, does everything I need. I'm an intermediate-but-infrequent sewer so I didn't want to spend a ton, but I wanted a lot of versatility.

I don't think you could quilt with it or sew, say, leather, but very sturdy, easy machines!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:19 AM on July 3, 2010

Response by poster: Wow, Tchad, thanks for that very detailed answer-- that is just the sort of information I need.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 11:49 AM on July 3, 2010

I have this Brother machine and I bought it from Amazon. I sew everyday - I make doll clothes - and this machine is better than the basic Kenmore I had used previously for about 4 years.

It has great customer reviews and I agree - it's a great machine for the $. Follow a maintenance schedule and it should last you a long time!
posted by morganannie at 12:04 PM on July 3, 2010

Best answer: I'm not as well-versed in the different makes and models, but thought I'd chime in with what I have, and what features I like.

I have a Kenmore that cost about $250 new a couple of years ago. It's been great for me so far.

For features, I recommend:
Ability to drop the feed dogs (if you ever want to try machine quilting, you'll want to use this feature with a darning foot)

At least one zig zag stitch, or a range of stretch stitches (in case you ever want to sew knits)

Variable speed control

A button to set the needle in the up or down position automatically when you stop sewing. Very handy!

Ability to adjust the presser foot tension (for applique)

Automatic buttonholer

Needle threader

Thread cutter

The only one of these mine doesn't have is the thread cutter (and even then it has a little razor blade thing on the side, just not the button you press).
posted by wwartorff at 12:12 PM on July 3, 2010

I wanted to add one more thing -- with my basic Brother I have also made a queen-size quilt, including the quilting.
posted by BlahLaLa at 5:39 PM on July 3, 2010

The rule of thumb in our house (I am a software developer, my wife is a fabric artist): do not spend less on a sewing machine than you would on a top of the line laptop computer.
posted by jimfl at 5:59 PM on July 3, 2010

go to here

You have some great advice here. You can look at specific machines and see what other people have said about them at the website. It is also great for other sewing, of course.
posted by annsunny at 7:57 PM on July 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I finally bought a machine (Yeah!!) a Singer 401. The beauty of the 401 is that they are so prized you can find every part on eBay right now and a zillion different accessories. Also they are all metal and gear-driven. I'm taking the plunge and disassembling/servicing/cleaning myself (it runs, but taking a look inside reveals it has years of built-up gunk.)

I also bought an oak cabinet/table off of Craigslist for $30.00. The cabinet is a gorgeous piece of furniture in itself and came with a Singer 478 built-in. The 478 does not run at the moment but the 401 fits in the cabinet just fine. I'm really thrilled and excited by the whole project. Can't wait to finish the cleaning job and get down to some serious fabric manipulation.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 8:13 AM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

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